Understanding Goal



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Lesson Plan: Free African Americans During the Civil War
Understanding Goal:

The outbreak of the Civil War had a significant impact on most Southerners, but free African Americans in the South faced a difficult choice. Their rights were already limited, but they faced further scrutiny as white Virginians prepared for war. Some free African Americans felt their limited rights could best be protected by supporting the Confederacy, while others believed their best opportunity to gain full civil rights would be through the victory of the Union.


Investigative Questions:

  • What was the status of free blacks in Southern society?

  • What choices did free African Americans have to make during the Civil War?

  • What role did free African Americans play during the Civil War?


Primary Sources:

  • Telegram, James R. Branch, Petersburg, to Thomas Branch, Richmond. April 22, 1861. Printed form and manuscript. Virginia. Governor (1860–1863: Letcher). Executive Papers, 1859–1863, Acc. 36787. Library of Virginia.

  • List of Free negroes employed at Fort Huger, Harry’s Bluff. [October] 1861. Manuscript. RG 46, Virginia Engineer Department, Records of the Engineer Department, 1861–1865, Acc. 36887. Library of Virginia.

  • Petition on the Behalf of William Breedlove, December 19, 1863. William Breedlove, Pardon Papers, December 19, 1863, John Letcher Executive Papers, Record Group 3, Accession 36787. Library of Virginia. [Image] [Transcription]

  • Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 27, 1861.


Length of Activity:

One 40–50-minute class period


Standards Addressed:

Virginia Standards of Learning:



VS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to

a) identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history;

b) determine cause-and-effect relationships;

d) draw conclusions and make generalizations;

f) sequence events in Virginia history;

g) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives;

h) evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing;

VS.7c The student will demonstrate knowledge of the issues that divided our nation and led to the Civil War by

c) describing the roles played by whites, enslaved African Americans, free African Americans, and American Indians.

USI.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to

a) identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1865;

e) evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing;

d) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives;

i) identify the costs and benefits of specific choices made, including the consequences, both intended and unintended, of the decisions and how people and nations responded to positive and negative incentives.

USI.9 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by

f) describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to

a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data, including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts, and art, to increase understanding of events and life in the United States;

b) evaluate the authenticity, authority, and credibility of sources;

c) formulate historical questions and defend findings, based on inquiry and interpretation;

f) develop skills in discussion, debate, and persuasive writing with respect to enduring issues and determine how divergent viewpoints have been addressed and reconciled;

h) interpret the significance of excerpts from famous speeches and other documents;

i) identify the costs and benefits of specific choices made, including the consequences, both intended and unintended, of the decisions and how people and nations responded to positive and negative incentives.

VUS.7 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and their importance as major turning points in American history by

a) evaluating the multiple causes of the Civil War, including the role of the institution of slavery as a principal cause of the conflict.
Materials:

  • Student Handout 1: Petition on Behalf of William Breedlove [Image and Transcription]

  • Student Handout 2: List of Free negroes employed at Fort Huger, Harry’s Bluff [October] 1861.

  • Student Handout 3: Telegram to Thomas Branch, April 22, 1861, and Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 27, 1861


Historical Background:

On the eve of the Civil War, Virginia had the largest population of enslaved African Americans and the second-largest free African American population in the nation, totaling 58,042 people combined. Petersburg had the highest population of free blacks in the entire state, followed by Richmond and Alexandria. The presence of free blacks was a source of anxiety for the state’s white leaders. A law passed in 1806 required newly freed blacks to leave the state within a year, but this provision was not always enforced or obeyed. Free African Americans occupied a tenuous position in Virginia’s society, as well as the rest of the South. They were denied certain rights, such as voting, holding office, serving on juries, trial by jury, and the right to carry firearms. If convicted of serious crimes, free blacks could even be sold into slavery. Additionally, they were forced to present documentation of their free status to nearly any white person who might inquire. A successful life as a free black person, in many cases, depended on earning and keeping the goodwill of the whites in his or her community. As a matter of self-preservation, many were forced into positions of accommodation.

These conditions were exacerbated by the outbreak of the Civil War. Some free blacks supported the Union and hoped for their victory, hoping to gain greater rights for themselves. Some free blacks publicly supported the Confederacy. While this may have been sincere, many may have volunteered in order to protect their standing in the community, a fact keenly illustrated by the case of William Breedlove. Even though free blacks offered to serve in the military, the leaders of the Confederacy were not ready to consider arming African Americans, free or enslaved. They were, however, prepared to accept and even require the service of both groups. The Virginia Convention of 1861 passed a conscription ordinance in July 1861, an action replicated by the Virginia General Assembly the following year. These measures did limit the length of time any free black man could be impressed, although increasing it from 60 days to 180 days, but the men were subjected to fines if they did not serve.

Thomas Branch (December 23, 1802–November 15, 1888), the recipient of the telegram included here, was a member of the Virginia Convention of 1861, representing Petersburg. He was a successful businessman, having founded Thomas Branch and Brothers (later Thomas Branch and Sons) and Thomas Branch and Company of Richmond. He also served a term as mayor of Petersburg from 1842 to 1843. This telegram was sent from his son, James Read Branch (July 28, 1828–July 2, 1869). During the convention, Branch was a Unionist, but voted for secession on both April 4 and April 17, and signed the Ordinance of Secession. In the coming months, he would champion legislation to use free black labor to work for the Confederate war effort.



While the communication noted the intent of one hundred free blacks to volunteer for military service, the men were not used in that capacity. A news article in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, dated April 27, 1861, details a ceremony where one hundred free blacks were accepted, not as soldiers, but to work on fortifications. These volunteers were warmly received, even being presented a Confederate flag by some of the women of the city, and marched out of the assemblage to the tune of “Dixie.” A spokesman for the group, Charles Tinsley, made a speech noting their support of the Confederacy.
Teacher Actions:

  1. Preactivity (5–7 minutes): Ask the students to contrast the experiences of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum South with free African Americans. How were their lives different? Discuss some of the laws that limited both groups. How might enslaved people become free? How could they protect that freedom? What would change with the secession crisis and the outbreak of the Civil War?

  2. Analysis and Discussion (10–15 minutes): Have students read and analyze Student Handout 1, the Petition on Behalf of William Breedlove. Consider using one of the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Sheets. Start with the image of the document, and then present the transcription. When was it created (and what would that mean as it relates to the Civil War)? Who created the document? For what purpose was it created? What does the petition reveal? Inform the students that William Breedlove was convicted of helping a runaway slave escape. Point out, that if convicted, Breedlove could be sold into slavery. Were whites treated this way? Why did free whites and free blacks receive different treatment under the law? Connect this back to the authors of the petition. Why were they interceding on Breedlove’s behalf? Why wasn’t Breedlove convicted? What does this tell us about the status of free blacks? Were they independent or dependent? What were the limitations on their freedoms?

  3. Analysis and Discussion (15–20 minutes): For the next exercise, divide the students into four groups. Give Student Handout 2, the List of Free negroes employed at Fort Huger to two of the groups and Student Handout 3, the telegram from James R. Branch to Thomas Branch, and the news item from the Richmond Daily Dispatch to the other two groups. Ask the students to analyze the documents within their groups, then lead a discussion of their findings. For the hired African Americans: What type of work might these people (men and women) perform? Were they working for the military? Or serving in the military? How can we tell? Did they volunteer for service? (In fact, they were required by law to serve, or faced being fined if they refused.) How much were the workers paid? For the telegram group: Why might free blacks volunteer to fight for the Confederacy? (Remind the students of their previous discussion about William Breedlove). Is this surprising to you? Why or why not? (The teacher should point out the arguments and evidence on both sides of the issue.)

  4. Assessment/Reflection (10 minutes or homework): Ask students to think about the choices free African Americans faced during the Civil War. Ask each student to write a letter as a free black person writing to another free black person in the summer of 1861 answering this question: Would it be better to volunteer to support the Confederacy or wait to be called into service? The letter must include two factual points to support the student's position.


Lesson Extension: Have the students read a biography of William Breedlove from the Shaping the Constitution Web site. Follow William Breedlove into Reconstruction. He serves in the Virginia General Assembly and as a justice of the peace. What changed about his status and rights after the war?
Further Reading:
Ely, Melvin. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Medford, Edna Greene. "'I Was Always a Union Man': The Dilemma of Free Blacks in Confederate Virginia." Slavery & Abolition 5 (1984): 1–16.
Lee, Susanna Michele. "Free Blacks During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Ed. Brendan Wolfe. December 17, 2010. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. September 13, 2010, (http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Free_Blacks_During_the_Civil_War).

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